With every second that passed, it seemed more probable that the decision to visit the Zeon homeworld was a mistake.
For the last twenty days – Ekosian; she still was unsure what the synodic day period was for Zeon, although it seemed to be around twenty-three hours – T’Pol had visited the Elder Governing Council for a period of no less than eight hours as they ostensibly heard her formal petition for assistance. In that time, she had silently observed as the twelve Elders – each represented some aspect of the Zeon society, though it remained unclear whether they were clan-based, tribe-based, or something else entirely – as they bickered and debated and pontificated on the merits of providing supplies to the two offworlders in their midst. Only one of the Elders was a male, though he was treated in exactly the same way as his fellow octogenarians so T’Pol was unable to determine if his inclusion was indicative of special status. A significant portion of the time in session was spent waging pointless arguments between Elders who clearly had pre-existing personality conflicts. Ultimately, very little was actually accomplished.
Which sadly made the Zeon system of leadership exactly as dysfunctional as every other form of government T’Pol had the misfortune of having interacted with, regardless of species.
The Council Chambers themselves were quite impressive. Located at the lowest point of the underground construction – she had not yet begun to use Trip’s ‘earthscraper’ term, although she was forced to admit it had merit – the Chambers were the only location T’Pol had seen that actually possessed functional doors. An ornate, circular room with an elaborate semi-transparent crystalline floor, the Chambers possessed a series of elevated seats and benches carved from the rock, most of which were empty at the moment. The benches were plain, unadorned, and appeared to be remarkably uncomfortable, while the seats ranged from only slightly more elaborate than the straight slats of chiseled marble or stone to gilded monstrosities that dominated the rest of the room. There were only a dozen of the larger chairs and they were located at twelve equidistant points around the chamber, each at the exact center of their respective delegations. Given that the Elders were utilizing these massive seats, T’Pol presumed that one’s seniority in the Council determined where one sat.
An elevated dais was in the very center of the Chambers, and it was here that T’Pol sat. Wide enough for several people – likely twelve, T’Pol reflected, giving the importance Zeons seem to give to that particular number – it had a circular desk (also carved from the rock) that curved around the raised platform. There was also a lectern and several chairs, all of varying qualities.
The abundance of chiseled stone gave the entire chamber a weathered sense of antiquity and primitiveness at odds with the various technological implements concealed in key locations. Brilliant halogen lights hummed from the corners where they were hidden and T’Pol had already been able to pick out a dozen camera positions. The room was also wired for sound, with each person present possessing a microphone that transmitted to well-hidden speakers in the ceiling and walls. Such an image had to be intentional and T’Pol could not help but to wonder about the psychology of such action.
Currently, two of the more argumentative Elders were bickering over some esoteric point of Zeon law that had been brought up during this latest round of debates over the wisdom of providing assistance, but T’Pol had long since tuned out their exact words. Seated next to her, Dena was wearing a conflicted expression – she seemed alternately bored and displeased at what she was witnessing, though anger also appeared rather frequently. Almost from the instant they arrived, she had been at T’Pol’s side, having been appointed First Arbiter, a title that seemed to have some significance in the Zeon culture that eluded T’Pol’s comprehension. As none of the Elders spoke or even comprehended the Tandos dialect, T’Pol had been forced to rely on Dena to translate for her.
“Enough.” First Eldest Sarai, who seemed to be the driving personality in the council, tapped a crystalline bell hanging beside her seat with the tip of her walking stick and instantly, the argument ceased. “First Arbiter,” Sarai continued, her voice booming out of the hidden speakers, “have you more to add?”
Shifting slightly in her seat, Dena gave T’Pol a quick look, as if she were about to translate the Eldest question. So far, the Zeons seemed unaware that T’Pol knew what they were saying, thanks to the universal translator chip cannibalized from Trip’s broken communicator. After the first, interminable day of being questioned in a language she did not comprehend, T’Pol had made an offhand remark to her human about missing Ensign Sato’s capabilities, and by the following morning, Trip had turned the receiver of his otherwise irreparable communicator into what looked like a simple piece of decorative jewelry. None of the Zeons looked twice at the earpiece, likely presuming that it was some part of her culture they did not understand, and T’Pol had allowed them to labor under the misconception that she was ignorant of their discussions.
“I will speak directly to the Elders if you will translate,” she said flatly. Dena’s eyes widened as T’Pol rose without waiting for a response. “You have been most generous in providing housing for Staff-Lancer Tucker and myself,” she began, using the Tandosian equivalent of Trip’s rank rather than the English term simply for ease of comprehension, “and we are grateful.” When Dena hesitated, T’Pol gave her a look and an upraised eyebrow. It worked. “The time has come for he and I to depart,” she said firmly once the initial translation was complete, locking eyes with Sarai and ignoring the others. “We do not ask for any further assistance from you and yours beyond what you have already provided, nor do we seek to endanger this world in any fashion.”
“Pretty words,” First Eldest Sarai intoned, “but what guarantees do you give to prove your trustworthiness?” T’Pol did not bother waiting for Dena to translate.
“None,” she said flatly. “We came in peace and we ask to depart in peace.”
The Council was silent for a long moment as it slowly sank in that T’Pol could understand them and even Dena studied her with open surprise before finally relaying the words T’Pol had spoken.
“Well,” Elder Sarai mused, her words low but quite audible nonetheless thanks to the Chamber’s acoustics, “you are certainly full of surprises.”
“It would seem our visitor has little need for arbitration,” one of the other Elders murmured, and at T’Pol’s side, Dena stiffened.
“Not so,” T’Pol interjected immediately. “While I may comprehend your tongue, I cannot speak it and Arbiter Dena has been most illuminating about facets of your civilization.”
“If you know our words,” another of the Elders intoned, “then you know our fears.”
“I do,” T’Pol replied, shifting her position so she could look at the speaker, “but your concerns are misplaced. Ours is a vessel of exploration, not of war, and neither Staff-Lancer Tucker’s people nor mine have hostile designs upon this or any other world.”
“So you say,” came the immediate retort, “but words are easy.”
“What would you have her do?” the male Elder asked suddenly. “Open their craft to us and repeat the error we made with Ekos?” His tone was sharp and biting, and had the intended effect as the belligerent Elder he addressed glowered and fell silent. “Eldest,” he said then, “is not the First Virtue to be generous without expectation of recompense?” His question seemed rhetorical as he pressed on without waiting for a reply. “And is not the Second to do no harm? I put forth that, by violating the First in this instance, we also damage the Second.”
“Arbiter,” one of the youngest Elders called out. “Can you absolutely verify that our visitor were in no way involved in with the Kellask incident?” T’Pol frowned – the word or place was unfamiliar to her – and glanced at the woman standing beside her.
“I can,” Dena replied. “My senior son retraced their steps on Tandos and saw with his own eyes where they first set foot on Ekos. Neither they nor their mother-craft were involved in any fashion.” She exhaled heavily. “Only Zeons hold blame.”
“To our eternal shame,” someone murmured, though it was not clear who.
“Then I withdraw any opposition to the First Virtue,” the questioning Elder declared. “Let it not be said that we have failed our duty.”
“Thus, we shall speak with one voice,” the First Eldest intoned before tapping her crystalline bell twice.
“With one voice,” every other Zeon in the room repeated, as if it were a benediction or had some other special weight T’Pol remained oblivious to. Without another word, the twelve representatives of the Governing Council rose from their seats – some with great difficulty – and promptly disappeared down flights of cunningly concealed steps directly in front of where they sat, appearing almost to sink through the floor in the same manner that Crewman Daniels had once phase-shifted through an Enterprise bulkhead. In mere seconds, T’Pol and Dena were completely alone in the cavernous Chamber.
“Your petition has been approved,” Dena announced as she began gathering the documents spread out on the table before them. “Over the next twelveday,” she continued, “the requested supplies will be assembled and stored upon your vessel.”
“Thank you,” T’Pol said simply. “Your assistance in this matter has been most helpful.”
“You had a need,” Dena replied instantly. “It would have been an abrogation of the First Virtue to do otherwise.” She gave T’Pol a sidelong look. “I must admit,” she added, “it would be a lie to say I do not benefit – the First Arbiter is oft called upon to take a Council seat.” She turned away and began walking toward the exit before T’Pol could reply or question why her companion did not seem especially pleased by her words.
As she knew he would, Trip was waiting for them in the anteroom connected to the Council chamber. His expression did not change as he rose from the straight-back chair, and even T’Pol’s sense of him remained calm, sedate almost, which only lent further credence to her theory. In the days since he had resumed meditating with her, her sense of equilibrium had returned. Gone were the inconsistent mood swings or the sharp spikes of painful sensations she knew to be his unregulated emotions. Trip obviously noticed the difference himself and, no matter that he utterly loathed meditation and had perfectly legitimate reasons to avoid it – the minor repairs to the T’Muna-Doth never ceased, given the starship’s former state of disrepair, and T’Pol had once read of the danger that humans could suffer if they internalized all emotions – he never complained a single time. Instead, he made it a point to join her in her whitespace at least twice a day. It was yet another reminder of what he was giving up for her.
And T’Pol never once let herself forget it.
“Congratulations,” he said as they approached. At her eyebrow twitch, Trip nodded in the direction of a wall monitor that was not terribly different from those she had seen aboard Enterprise or on Earth. “They’ve been broadcasting the equivalent of breaking news so I guessed that the Council agreed to give us the supplies.” Slipping back into the Tandos dialect, he continued as he held a folded envelope. “One of the diplomats gave this to me,” he said, “and used your name.” The smile he flashed was gone almost before T’Pol noticed it. “Obviously, I had no idea what she was saying…”
“That would be a formal meal invitation,” Dena identified. “It will come from one of the Lesser Seats – each of the Twelve will expect you to dine with them as they strive to show all who observe how generous they are and how dedicated to the Virtues.”
“I see,” T’Pol said as she accepted the envelope, even though she truthfully did not understand the point to such a meeting. Since they had been on Zeon, she and Trip had been virtually sequestered and all interactions with anyone outside Dena’s family had been strictly regulated or controlled.
“In truth, this is an old, senseless tradition,” Dena added. “Since we filed a formal petition to the Twelve, it is the Twelve who are expected to provide their ability to all who can see.” She frowned. “The Lesser Seats are the least powerful and will likely be the most lavish in their efforts to supply you.”
“That is a most inefficient way to run the government,” T’Pol mused. A flash of emotion – pure delight mixed with mischief – pulsed off Trip, but was quickly suppressed. She glanced in his direction and met his warm, blue eyes. To her great surprise, he quirked a questioning eyebrow in an eerily familiar fashion. Unaware of the silent discussion or at least ignoring it, Dena nodded.
“It is,” she agreed.
“Is this invitation just for T’Pol?” Trip asked softly. His expression remained guarded, even when the Zeon woman blinked in confusion.
“No,” Dena replied hesitantly. “Why would you … oh.” She snorted then, a purely human-like sound of amusement. “You think we are biased against males,” she guessed. “To an alien, I suppose that would seem to be true.” Her smile faltered as she studied Trip and T’Pol silently took a step back, still secretly amazed at how easily she and her human were able to work together. She too had suspected the Zeon culture was female-dominated, but had chosen to say nothing out of concern they might perceive an insult where none was intended, yet Trip had managed to address the issue in a way that circumvented any potential affront. “Historically,” Dena began, her words taking on the tone of a lecturing scholar, “Zeon females have ever outnumbered males.” She frowned. “I do not understand the biology or the genetics, but we have only recently begun to stabilize our population. My birthing two sons is considered an aberration of sorts – my mother bore six daughters and her mother brought ten into life.”
“No offense was intended,” Trip said calmly, his body language still wary. “I apologize if you feel insulted.”
“I have spent the last twenty cycles on Ekos, Charles,” Dena said with a slight smile. “A genuine question about my culture asked by an explorer who has no need to lie would never insult.” She sighed. “I am proud of Zeon culture,” she said, “and I will admit that there are gender issues yet to be fully redressed, but old habits are difficult to rid one’s culture of.” When he did not reply, Dena gave him another maternal smile. “So yes, Charles,” she said, “you and T’Pol are both included in this invitation.”
“Well,” Trip said in English with another tight, wry smile to T’Pol, “I guess we’re going to a party.” He gave her a quick wink before launching into another round of questions for Dena, mostly about what to expect at this dinner. As she described similar social gatherings, T’Pol blew out a breath that was not a sigh, no matter what her human might say. From a diplomatic standpoint, there was simply no way to avoid this gathering, not after having requested aid from them in the first place. She would have to simply – what was the human phrase? – grin and bore it.
This time, T’Pol did sigh.